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Working With Nature, a Sneak Peek at Malibu Lagoon

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Perspective rendering of Malibu Lagoon. Courtesy of California State Coastal Conservancy.

A flock of birds flew overhead, almost like one dazzling, mercurial organism, soaring and skating this way and that. Then, suddenly, another flock appeared in the opposite direction, as if on a crash course. I couldn't take my gaze away. How would these birds negotiate such a confusion of wings?

I needn't have worried. As if guided by a second sense, the not-so-warring flocks kept on flying toward each other, like two waves in the sea meeting, greeting and finally dispersing. It was a marvelous sight, a testament to the amazing agility of avian navigation. And I wouldn't have seen it had I not been at the site of the ongoing Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project, just across the Malibu Country Mart.

A project led by the California State Parks (and includes the California State Coastal Conservancy, the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation), the site sits at a neighboring watershed, but I couldn't help but be curious about the possibilities of restoring a wetland the Federal government has filed "impaired" for the last 20 years.

Despite the opposition faced at the tail end of the project that's more than 20 years in the making, a revitalized Malibu Lagoon will once again rise from the murky depths to which it had been relegated in recent urbanization history. The soon-to-be completed plans also provide an admirable example of how mankind can tread lightly on nature, even while nature is allowed to flourish.

"It was in pretty poor condition when we began," said Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor for Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission (SMBRC), a science-based State Commission established in 2002 by the California State legislature.

"The tar-ry, stinky stuff that robs oxygen from the water were choking organic matter," Abramson elaborated, referring to the decaying organic matter his team had first pulled out. It wasn't apparent to the naked eye, but to scientists studying the eco-system, the lagoon was suffocating.

The Malibu Lagoon is a coastal wetland, an environment that once covered 95 percent of Southern California. The 31-acre bay sits at the end of the Malibu Creek Watershed and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Malibu's Surfrider Beach, which gets about 1.5 million visitors a year.

The lagoon is now only a portion of what it once was. As we often hear, human activity has taken its toll on the ecosystem. From the '40s to the '60s, the site had been a dumping ground for construction waste while building the Pacific Coast Highway, filling in large, low-lying portions of the Malibu Creek mouth. The PCH Bridge now constricts the lagoon's surface area. Then, by the late '70s, two baseball diamonds were placed over the western portion of the lagoon. All the while, urbanization significantly increased the pollution running into the lagoon.

Aerial view of Malibu Lagoon | Courtesy of Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission (SMBRC), made possible by LightHawk
Aerial view of Malibu Lagoon | Courtesy of Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission (SMBRC), made possible by LightHawk

It wasn't until 1983 that a first attempt at restoration was done by the California State Parks. The parks' solution, which involved creating three channels perpendicular to the natural flow of the creek and adding pedestrian bridges, unfortunately choked the life out of the water.

The sediment coming in from the watershed piled up, while the lagoon's poor re-design couldn't circulate the tide enough to flush the sediments and organic material out. Sediments kept accumulating at about an inch per year.

"We had a stagnant lagoon that could not support the birds and wildlife here," said Shelley Luce, SMBRC Executive Director, who also joined me that windy day on the lagoon. As a result, the impaired lagoon is now being reshaped to improve water flows and giving the wildlife a little more room to breathe.

"We're giving the site the bones, but from there nature will do what it does best," said Luce of the project. The restoration entailed lowering the elevation of the main channel and taking out the three perpendicular channels to create one large, wider main channel that faces the ocean. Instead of taking a hard left turn, water would more naturally ebb and flow. The restoration also removed the pinch points, and situated the islands and channels to take advantage of the prevailing wind that blows from west to east. This helps the water circulate better in the lagoon.

Small flags planted around the lagoon mark off the 21,000 native plants that have been introduced to the site, so workers are sure not to trample on the still new and fragile environment.

By improving water circulation, the wetland would be able to keep itself clean naturally and attract even more birds and wildlife than it does now. The project would bring back over two acres of wetlands.

All this sounds like a naturalist's delight, but perhaps what engaged me the most was the project's careful consideration of its users: visitors looking for respite, birders, students, and surfers. "One of the goals of the project was really to answer how we get people down here," said Abramson.

At the lagoon, the designers were able to tread the delicate balance of answering to the peoples' needs, but championing nature as well. Many of the architectural elements were sensitively inserted, which allowed Mother Nature the spotlight while people enjoyed the bounties of being close to Her.

Rendering of the site plan | Courtesy of Caifornia State Coastal Conservancy
Rendering of the site plan | Courtesy of Caifornia State Coastal Conservancy

Like a proud papa, Abramson walked me around the future elements of the site, painting a picture of what will soon be. The lagoon's design encouraged people to actually experience nature, not just step back and be taught its merits.

Birders will have great viewing locations that offer different views at different times. Many of these areas could also be used as teaching nodes that can accommodate 50 to 70 children.

The Bird Observation deck sits closest to PCH and offers great bird watching and photography vantage during the mornings.

The Kelp Node (named for the inlays of native vegetation and kelp fronds that decorate it) could double as a microscope station where school groups could gather to view the organisms that live within the ecosystem before them.

Birders (and other curious nature-seekers) will be able to get up close to resting birds by hiding behind the bird blind. Constructed with sandbar willows interwoven on a steel frame, the bird blind effectively camouflages visitors behind it.

The Birder's Nook will have egg-shaped seating where they can view the birds. On a humorous note, the eggs aren't just any kind, but they were fabricated to echo the coloring of eggs laid by birds in the lagoon. Those who search for more privacy would do well to find the Watershed Overlook, which cantilevers over the water during high tide. From here, viewers can look up to view the entire Malibu Creek watershed.

One of my favorite features is the Watershed Fountain, a 30-inch diameter 3D version of the Malibu watershed, geographic contours, dips, climbs and all. "You can put water in it and see how it actually moves along the watershed," said Abramson. Pretty cool, especially when most people only have a hazy idea of what a watershed actually entails.

For those who are lured more by the water, the lagoon has the Winter Ramp Summer Clock, a ramp that leads down to the water level. Whenever the tides rise more than 6.5 feet, water will slowly move up the ramp. As the water level rises with the tides, so the water also creeps up the ramp -- a kind of amphibian sundial that tunes people into the ever changing tides. Adjacent to the ramp is Summer Ampitheater, with benches carved out trees salvaged from the old parking lot area.

Behind all of these features is the Surfer's Express, a 1,800-foot long path that allows surfers swift access to their next great wave. It's a win-win for everyone, it seems.

Construction is still ongoing (completion is set for the Spring), but from what I've seen, there is a lot to look forward to in Malibu. Already, a scattering of people are coming down to the lagoon to enjoy this close contact with nature. While there, a couple slowly walked down the unpaved paths. A father and son found their way near the beach with a small pet dog. It's probably not advisable to be so close to the project site without a reflective vest and hardhat, much like I was wearing, but it seems curiosity is a mighty incentive.

It might have taken a few years, but things are finally looking up for this lagoon. With any luck, any newfound naturalists inspired by this scene will also look to their own watersheds to see what possibilities there are for living with nature.

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